For hundreds of years the mysterious narwhal, with its strange protruding tusk, has captivated the imagination of mariners.
But its baffling ‘horn’ has remained a puzzle, with some scientists thinking it may allow the mammal to joust with rivals, while others believe it could be a tool of echolocation, or even an ice pick.
Now footage captured using aerial drones has found that the narwhals actually use the tusk to stun Arctic cod, rendering them immobile and thus easier to capture and eat.
The record of never-before-seen behaviour was released by the WWF who were monitoring a group of narwhals in Tremblay sound, Nunavut, Canada alongside Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF, said: “Narwhal are one of the most magical creatures on our planet. So it’s no surprise that they have gained an almost mythical status as the ‘unicorns of the sea’.
“Previously we thought that narwhals used their tusks to joust with rivals and help them mate, or even a device for echolocation, but this new footage shows a behaviour that has never been seen before.
“The narwhal is one of the least studied animals because it is so hard to get to the Arctic areas where it lives. So drones are helping us study its behaviour.”
The tusk is actually a canine tooth which spirals anti-clockwise up to nine feet forward from the head of adult males and contains thousands of nerve endings which help narwhal sense tiny movements around them. Tusks washing up on the shore are thought to have inspired tales of unicorns.
As well as helping unravel the mystery of the narwhal tusk the footage also shows that narwhal feed on their summering grounds, which helps conservationists know which areas need protection from shipping or overfishing.
There are only around 110,000 narwhal left in the wild, and every summer three-quarters of the world’s population migrate to the Canadian sounds. But campaigners are concerned that melting Arctic sea ice could harm their environment.
David Miller, President and CEO for WWF-Canada says: “This footage, while also stunning to watch, will play a significant role in the future of narwhal conservation.
“As the Arctic warms and development pressure increases, it will be important to understand how narwhal are using their habitat during their annual migration.
“With this information in hand, we can work to minimize the effects of human activities on narwhal.”
Source: The Telegraph